Thursday, September 28, 2006

President Bush joked that he planned to “watch the body language” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf when he presided over a White House dinner with the two adversaries last night, but if he did, what he saw was grim.

As the president stood between the two leaders, Gen. Musharraf remained expressionless and Mr. Karzai nodded. But neither man looked at the other.

At the end of a brief statement, in which Mr. Bush said with understatement, “We’ve got a lot of challenges facing us,” he shook hands with Gen. Musharraf, then Mr. Karzai. But the two neighbors neither shook hands, nor looked at each other.

The three men then walked grim-faced down the colonnade, heading to what was expected to be a tense dinner of “sunchoke” soup, spicy sea bass and endive salad in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House.

“All of us must protect our countries, but at the same time, we all must work to make the world a more hopeful place,” Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden. “And so today’s dinner is a chance for us to strategize together, to talk about the need to cooperate.”

“We’re proud to have you here, Mr. President,” Mr. Bush said to Gen. Musharraf, who replied quietly, “My pleasure.”

“Proud to have you here, Mr. President,” Mr. Bush said to Mr. Karzai. “Thanks very much,” the Afghan leader said.

Mr. Bush offered words of praise for the two leaders, who have been engaged in an increasingly belligerent exchange of words.

“These two men are personal friends of mine; they are strong leaders who have an understanding of the world in which we live; they understand that the forces of moderation are being challenged by extremists and radicals.”

Joining the three leaders at dinner — billed an “iftar,” a meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, because Gen. Musharraf and Mr. Karzai are Muslim — were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. The two nations’ ambassadors to the U.S. also attended.

More than two hours after the dinner was scheduled to end, the White House said the three leaders had shared their views during the “post-sundown meal.” But when asked by reporters how long the dinner had lasted, White House spokesman Nicole Guillemart would not say.

“The three leaders had a constructive exchange on the common challenges facing our three nations,” spokesman Tony Snow said.

The White House dinner came as violence rises in Afghanistan.

This month, a suicide bombing killed a provincial governor, a close associate of Mr. Karzai’s. On Monday, Safia Ama Jan, a women’s rights advocate who ran an underground school for girls during Taliban rule, was assassinated.

Yesterday, Afghan security forces killed 25 insurgency suspects during a clash in southern Afghanistan, and a suicide bombing targeting a NATO convoy wounded one civilian.

A U.S. military official said American troops on Afghanistan’s eastern border have seen a threefold increase in attacks since a recent truce between Pakistan and pro-Taliban tribesmen that was supposed to have stopped cross-border raids by the militants.

Mr. Bush’s first challenge was to figure out how to push the two neighbors to stop their war of words and work together to clamp down on their porous borders and improve efforts to defeat the Taliban. The Taliban is growing in strength and conducting coordinated attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan five years after being ousted from power in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

But the Afghan leader has for months accused Gen. Musharraf of allowing terrorists to cross his country’s border and upset a delicate balance in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani leader has brusquely told Mr. Karzai that he does not know his own country.

Mr. Bush has been caught in the middle, seeking to find common ground on which the leaders of Pakistan, a chief ally in the war on terror, and Afghanistan, a fledgling democracy, can agree and act.

“It will be interesting for me to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are,” Mr. Bush said in a Tuesday press conference with Mr. Karzai, a few days after he held a similar event with Gen. Musharraf.

The Afghan leader cracked up the audience in the White House East Room when he replied with a smile: “I’ll be good.”

The White House knows there is tension between the two leaders, and Mr. Snow said yesterday that Mr. Bush will seek to “do whatever we can, that they want us to do, to help resolve them.”

“But the two leaders also understand that they’ve got a shared interest in making sure that the other guy succeeds,” Mr. Snow said.

Although Mr. Karzai refers to Gen. Musharraf as “my friend” or “my brother,” the two have split over a recent deal with Islamic extremists. Gen. Musharraf recently signed a pact with pro-Taliban tribal leaders on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a deal Mr. Karzai initially condemned.

But he said this week that the deal will be useful if it achieves one goal — “that the terrorists will not be allowed to cross over into Afghanistan to attack the coalition against terror — that is, the international community and Afghanistan together.”

The deal requires Pakistani troops to end military action against the pro-Taliban fighters in return for the militants stopping attacks on Pakistani forces and not crossing into Afghanistan to launch ambushes.

“We will have to wait and see if that is going to be implemented exactly the way it is signed. So, from our side, it’s a wait-and-see attitude. But, generally, we will back any move, any deal that would deny terrorism sanctuary in North Waziristan or in the tribal territories of Pakistan,” Mr. Karzai said.

Gen. Musharraf has bristled at accusations that he is allowing terrorists to roam freely in his country.

He said that Afghanistan, not Pakistan — which has deployed 80,000 troops along the border — is responsible for the problem, and that it is hurting his nation.

“He is not oblivious. He knows everything. But he is purposely denying, turning a blind eye like an ostrich. He doesn’t want to tell the world what is the fact for his own personal reasons,” Gen. Musharraf told CNN.

The two also have clashed over the whereabouts of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who has long been suspected of being holed up in the mountainous region along the border.

Mr. Karzai said Mullah Omar is “for sure” in Pakistan, but Gen. Musharraf says he’s in Afghanistan.

On bin Laden, Mr. Karzai says: “If I told you he was in Pakistan, President Musharraf, my friend, would be mad at me. But if I said he was in Afghanistan, that would not be true.”

But as the joint dinner approached, both tempered their words and sought to put the United States in the middle to mediate differences.

“The United States, as our ally, is helping both countries,” Mr. Karzai said Tuesday. “And I think it is very important that we have more dedication and more intense work with sincerity, all of us, to get rid of the problems that we have around the world.”

Yesterday, the Afghan leader said, “I’m simply seeking more coordination. Afghanistan has to do more. Pakistan has to do more.”

Gen. Musharraf said Pakistan and Afghanistan had settled some differences when he visited Kabul earlier this month.

“God willing, in the future, we have a concerted strategy and we trust each other in our fight against terrorism and extremism,” he said.

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